As Statehouses Shift, So Do the Prospects for Clean Energy

A number of governors who campaigned on renewables and other environmental causes won their races—and the chance to get their states moving on serious climate action.

November 20, 2018
Maine Governor-elect Janet Mills celebrates on election night.

Elise Amendola/AP

Progress on climate action is being made every day, even though it’s sometimes hard to grasp. You may sense that there are more solar panels and wind turbines around, and your lungs may feel the difference that less carbon pollution can make, but the work that’s going on behind the scenes registers for most of us as language: the contractual wording underpinning a multinational climate agreement, or the legalese behind a newly passed rule or law.

The midterm elections, however, gave us an opportunity to see climate progress in a more direct and exciting way, especially when you focus on America’s statehouses. All across the country, gubernatorial candidates who campaigned on climate action and clean energy were triumphant over fossil fuel industry–supported incumbents.

Ever since President Trump recklessly pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement last year, there’s been much discussion of how states are going to have to do much of the heavy lifting to pick up the carbon-cutting slack. In the wake of the pullout, for example, lawmakers in Nevada, New Mexico, and Maine passed clean energy bills and then sent them to their respective governors for signing. Unfortunately, those governors vetoed the bills and stalled the legislation. Now voters have swept all three of them out of office. In their stead is a trio of new leaders, each of whom has pledged not only to support renewable energy in his or her state but also to supercharge it.

In the run-up to his victory, Nevada’s incoming governor, Steve Sisolak, created an environment-themed campaign video in which he vowed unequivocally to protect the state’s public lands—including Gold Butte, which was designated a national monument by President Obama over the fierce objections of Sisolak’s gubernatorial rival (who was then Nevada’s attorney general) and the state’s senior senator, who also lost his race on November 6. Sisolak went even further by vigorously supporting a ballot proposal that would commit his state to getting 50 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030. The ballot measure won—just like Sisolak did, setting the stage for action on his desire to “cement [Nevada’s] status as a leader in renewable energy.” (For what it’s worth, he also enthusiastically said that he’d like to get Nevada “on the road to 100 percent.”)

Nevada Governor-elect Steve Sisolak greets supporters in Las Vegas.

John Locher/AP

Meanwhile, New Mexico governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham has a record of opposition to Trump’s repeal of the Clean Power Plan and his administration’s egregious assault on public lands. And Janet Mills won the governorship in the politically unpredictable state of Maine with an environmental platform that includes reducing climate pollution 80 percent by 2030 and getting Mainers to commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Similar vows to get their states to 100 percent renewable energy by or before 2050 were also made by the new governors-elect of Colorado and Illinois. In the former, Jared Polis is actually vowing to get there by 2040—giving his state the most ambitious climate target of any state in the country. And in the latter, venture capitalist-turned-politician J.B. Pritzker won after excoriating his predecessor’s proposal to end limits on emissions from a fleet of eight coal plants, and furthermore promising to bring Illinoisans together to usher in their state’s renewables-based future. “As governor, I will stand on the side of science and reason and not scrap limits on pollution,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I plan to bring labor and environmental groups to the table to make real progress on clean air regulations and protect working families as their communities transition toward a clean energy economy.”

On taking office, these incoming governors will become key players in the nationwide and state-led effort to curb pollution and create jobs by transitioning from dirty fossil fuels to renewables. It would be nice if this climate progress didn’t feel so much like a battle these days; if it felt, instead, like a concerted effort on behalf of all citizens, all businesses, all institutions, and all politicians—at all levels, from the president on down.

We’ll get there. The world depends on it. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


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